Gary Bold | brilliant physicist, inspired educator

10 July 2018
Professor Gary Bold, Department of Physics, playing the piano
Gary loved to perform.

Associate Professor Gary Bold died unexpectedly on 3 July this year after a short time in hospital.

Gary was a fantastic physicist and one of the country’s most influential science educators and he leaves a massive legacy. He spent more than 45 years with the Department of Physics at the University of Auckland and some current department members have known him throughout their entire careers.

Gary was already on the lecturing staff at Auckland during his PhD studies, which he finished in 1970. Gary’s PhD was in the field of Radio Science, a topic supported by the Radio Research Centre, then a major group inside the Department of Physics.

Underwater acoustics

After graduating, Gary moved from radio waves to the field of underwater acoustics, and spent a post-doctoral year with his wife Rosemary and children Michael, Anna and Geoff, at Weymouth in the United Kingdom.

When Gary and family returned to Auckland, the new acoustics group was cooperating with the defence scientific establishment to study underwater sound propagation, working off the Navy ship HMNZS Tui in the Hauraki Gulf. Gary's expertise in electronics made him a key member of the team; maintaining and calibrating the multichannel tape recorders and carrying out much of the subsequent signal processing.

One of Gary’s career highlights was his involvement with the ATOC project, which looked at sounds propagating underwater over trans-oceanic distances. This also provided an elegant segue from his thesis topic, Antipodal High Frequency Radio Propagation addressing the propagation of radio signals which circle the earth while trapped in the ionosphere, to the study of sound waves similarly confined to a specific layer of the ocean.

This work yielded data on ocean temperatures and the state of the climate system. Likewise, Gary’s initial involvement with radio and signal propagation underpinned his passionate hobby as a ham radio enthusiast. He was a leading light of Auckland’s radio community for decades, and his colleagues announced his passing by noting that his call sign ZL1AN is now a ‘Silent Key’, as short and evocative an elegy as a person could hope for.

Professor Gary Bold, Department of Physics, was an inspired and award-winning teacher.
Gary, far right, was an inspired and award-winning teacher.

Remarkable teacher

But perhaps Gary’s most remarkable contribution was through his teaching. Thanks to the huge number of students he taught and inspired at the University of Auckland, and his record as a teacher of teachers, Gary is likely to be one of the most influential physicists to ever work in New Zealand.

Gary’s teaching was remarkable for both his own classroom practice as a stellar lecturer, a showman, a lover of clever demonstrations, quirky results and nifty examples, and as an exemplar for his colleagues.

Many of Gary’s key contributions as a leading educator significantly anticipated what is now seen as best practice, from peer reviews of teaching, to delineating expectations for student learning with meticulous clarity, approaching teaching as a skill to be honed over a career in the classroom.His contributions were recognised by a Prime Minister's Supreme Award at the 2004 Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards.

Beyond being a gifted physicist, Gary was a natural showman, a talent honed via his involvement with amateur theatre, and was known for lecture demonstrations that on at least one occasion included lighting his pipe with a laser, a feat that would violate both laser safety and smoke-free policies today.

Gary was renowned for producing detailed lecture notes to support his teaching, amounting to small self-contained textbooks. This practice has its roots in a 1990 contract with the Maritime Systems Division of the Australian Defense Science and Technology Organisation, which saw Gary and his colleague Professor Chris Tindle offer a course to help a newly hired batch of PhDs shift to the field of underwater acoustics. The contract required full printed lecture notes and these evolved into Gary’s text book for signal processing courses in the Department of Physics.

Teaching tips

In 2008 Gary put together his thoughts about teaching for an Ako Aotearoa teaching profile. Two of his key pieces of advice were:

  • "You've got to feel passionately about your subject. I'm still entranced by the beauty and simplicity of physics, and it is a privilege to stand in front of a class attempting to pass this on."
  • "You've got to approach your teaching with friendliness, humility and absolute honesty. More, much more is required, but students will also forgive much in those in which they sense at least these attributes, and they will sense them very fast."

One of the most remarkable things about Gary was the fidelity with which he lived up the values he espoused; the tributes from his former students all recount his passion and enthusiasm for his subject, and his care and concern for his students. Within hours of the news of his passing, dozens of members of our world-wide alumni community had written to express their sorrow and recall the impact he had on their lives.

Gary participated actively in all aspects of University life and touched those he met with his humility, insight and mischievous sense of humour. He was a superb colleague, a fantastic teacher and a humane and decent man. He will be sorely missed.